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Jewish World Review July 7, 2004/ 18 Tamuz 5764

Kathleen Parker

Kathleen Parker
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'Tabloiding' America and the threat to democracy | The "public's right to know" has received a thorough vetting the past couple of weeks with release of a U.S. Senate candidate's sealed divorce records, the contents of which were sufficiently embarrassing to cause him to withdraw from the race.

Republican candidate Jack Ryan's divorce files, which were opened at the behest of the Chicago Tribune and a television station, revealed that Ryan had taken his wife to a "sex club" and asked her to have sex with him in front of others.

Ryan and his former wife sought to keep the particulars of their divorce private; just days after the media managed to release them, Ryan dropped out of the race. Who can blame him?

The media's latest intrusion into what once was private space has spawned their next challenge: the unsealing of Sen. John F. Kerry's sealed divorce records, which he understandably has declared off limits. We shall see how much respect he gets and whose double standard slides by uncontested.

Now there may be plenty of reasons to reject his candidacy, but on principle, prying into the privacy of his divorce records should not be the means of producing them. Meanwhile, we might ask ourselves: What next and to what end? After Ryan and Kerry, who else becomes fair game? Is there ever a portion of one's life that should be off limits, or does the public's right to know preclude any claim to privacy for those who venture into the public realm?

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The more important question — the posing of which suggests a real and present threat to democracy — who will run for office? Who will serve? Who ever would submit themselves to such public scrutiny and potential embarrassment? Presumably, only people who have never made a mistake, and what do they know?

As to the "sin" to which we are now privy: Is it really so awful that Ryan took his wife to a sex club — not apparently at gunpoint — and asked her to play along?

Such recreations aren't for everyone. Apparently they weren't for the former Mrs. Ryan, but no crime was committed. Surely the former Mrs. Ryan was capable of resisting her husband's crass come-hitherings.

The Ryans say they sealed their court records to protect their child. Given what we now know, their decision seems not only reasonable but also responsible.

Here's the bottom line: We don't know what transpired between the Ryans, nor is it any of our business so long as no criminal charges are at issue. And by that logic, Kerry's divorce should remain sealed as well.

But there's another strange logic in cases like these. Already the buzz has begun as to how long Kerry's records will remain protected.

In the Ryan case, California Superior Court Judge Robert Schnider ruled that the records could be opened contrary to the Ryans' wishes in part because: "The openness of court files must be maintained so that the public can be assured that there is no favoritism shown to the rich and the powerful. Protection from embarrassment cannot be a basis for keeping from the public what is put in public courts."

It's true that the starting point for any non-juvenile court case is a presumption of openness. But to say that protecting privacy suggests special treatment for the rich sounds like a faux-populist mask for voyeuristic gratification. A kind of reality TV ethos wired into our nation's courts.

Anyone can seek to have one's records sealed, though certain conditions have to be met. According to a divorce attorney with whom I spoke, these vary from state to state and might include: ensuring a fair trial, need for witness cooperation, public or professional significance of the lawsuit, or harm to parties from disclosure.

The Ryans' personal embarrassment arguably might not suffice to protect their records, but the risk of emotional harm to their child seems sufficiently compelling to respect the Ryans' wish for privacy. If not, just what is sufficiently compelling and according to whose judgment?

The Tribune explained its position in an editorial, which read in part: "Voters need information about the views, background and character of the people they elect."

All true. But what we learned about the Ryans is that they had good cause to seal their records and we had none to open them. In the end, no one's the better for their unfortunate exposure and — with apologies to those interested in Kerry's records — few are wiser.

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